Manila has been forced into an embarrassing climbdown over accusations that China was building concrete blocks in a disputed shoal that has been a major source of tension between the two countries.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino said yesterday the "blocks" on Scarborough Shoal, a group of rocks China calls Huangyan Island 120 nautical miles off the coast of Luzon, were "very old" and "not a new phenomenon".
Last month, Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told lawmakers China had violated a non-binding code by preparing to build structures on the shoal, showing lawmakers surveillance photos of the "blocks".
China denied the accusation and accused Manila of deliberately stirring up trouble over disputed waters in South China Sea.
Photos taken recently at the shoal show only natural rocks and coral jutting above the surface.
Manila's climbdown came as Philippine officials said a Filipino-British company had begun talks with China's state-owned offshore oil producer for an oil- and gas-exploration deal at Reed Bank. The bank is in another part of the South China Sea where Philippine and Chinese vessels were involved in a confrontation 2½ years ago.
If a deal is struck, it would be the first between China and the Philippines involving territory in the sea that both countries claim.
Philippine Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla said talks between Forum Energy and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, or CNOOC, to develop an area of Reed Bank had recently been held in Hong Kong and were at a preliminary stage.
Both China and the Philippines would have to approve a deal, but Aquino has said China would have to conform to Philippine laws, as Reed Bank was well within its economic zone.
There was no immediate reaction from China, which has long insisted it owns Reed Bank.
Territorial rows between China and the Philippines over parts of the South China Sea have worsened in recent years, straining ties.
The Philippines has taken the unprecedented step of making an arbitration case under the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea against China's claims and has ignored pressure from Beijing to scrap the action.
Aquino said yesterday he had briefly met Premier Li Keqiang on the sidelines of a Southeast Asian summit in Brunei two weeks ago and discussed the territorial rifts.
"We still maintained both our positions," Aquino said. "But at least we're talking."
Reuters, Associated Press